One More Year
An amendment to the Highway Bill from Senator Max Baucus (MT) successfully gained the support of 82 Senators and subsequently provided a one-year extension to payments for the federal Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) programs. Senator Baucus’ amendment couldn’t have come any sooner; the Secure Rural Schools program expired late last year and the last guaranteed full- funding payment for PILT is scheduled for this spring, putting rural communities across the country at risk.
For decades, these two measures have helped compensate rural counties for the lack of local tax revenue as a result of federal landholding. More specifically, for those who didn’t grow up in the trees of the Pacific Northwest: PILT includes “federal payments to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable Federal lands within their boundaries,” while SRS has provided more than a century’s worth of assistance to rural counties dependent on timber receipts from federal lands. Since its inception in 1908, SRS has supplied 25% of revenue from timber activities on U.S. Forest Service to resident local counties. For a long time PILT and SRS funds have provided much needed support for county health and safety programs, local infrastructure needs, and more.
As a native to the hills and vales of Oregon, I’m familiar with the strife and economic struggles faced by many rural counties that have depended on an environmentally unsustainable level of timber harvest in order to ensure potholes are filled and crossing guards are paid. In fact, growing up in Western Oregon, I was part of the sixty five percent of Oregonians that lived within 10 miles of Western Oregon BLM lands. Like my friends and neighbors, I grew up using these lands to hike, camp, and recreate. Three quarters of those BLM lands contribute to the quality of domestic drinking water, and the streams that flow through them provide critical habitat for numerous salmon and steelhead runs; furthermore, nearly half of the lands are critical habitat for rare wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act.
By passing the Baucus amendment, counties could receive hundreds of millions of much needed dollars critical to community services in more than 1,900 counties in 49 States, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. (The amendment would, in part, be paid for by changes to the federal retirement system.)
Unfortunately for these 1,900 counties, they still have one more hurdle: Congress’ House of Representatives.
This much-needed extension buys federal lawmakers, local stakeholders, and county leadership an opportunity to consider a more long-term solution to the county payments challenge. We hope for one that does not return to the timber wars of yesteryear, but provides a more viable solution for both communities and their public forests. One option includes the County Payments Reauthorization Act (S 1692), which would extend Secure Rural Schools at declining levels (95% of the previous year’s payment), as well as provide full funding for Payments in Lieu of Taxes for five more years, from FY 2013 to FY 2017. This bipartisan bill, with over 25 cosponsors ensures support of the nation’s rural economies, and provides even more time for stakeholders to devise a sustainable solution to the fiscal challenges facing communities, like those in my home state of Oregon.
In offering our support to S 1692, the Club recognizes that the alternative to this five-year bill would likely relink timber harvest receipts in many areas to the support of rural county services (including schools, public safety, and community infrastructure), not a practical option for the management of our nation’s public lands. Quite simply, reopening the historic and dangerous link between rural county funding and large-scale timber harvests is not a viable option.
Moving forward, we hope the House of Representatives will buy these counties one more year—support the Baucus extension, and foster real conversation about the needs of rural communities and their forests.
By Ani Kame'enui
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service